Democrats Hope the Bluegrass State Is Just Their Color

by Stuart Rothenberg November 23, 2005 · 1:49 PM EST

While many in the national media have become infatuated with the problems of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) and the possibility that Democrats can ride a wave of voter anger in the Buckeye State, neighboring Kentucky seems to offer Democrats a similar opportunity.

Like its neighbor to the north, Kentucky possesses a Republican governor with weak poll numbers and, Democrats hope, some surprising opportunities for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But the DCCC faces the same problems in the Bluegrass State that it does in Ohio: a dearth of obvious Republican targets and a shortage of top-tier challengers. Still, if a Democratic wave develops a year from now, as Democratic insiders hope it does, the party intends to be ready with credible candidates in three or maybe even four Kentucky districts.

The administration of Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has been the target of a criminal investigation for months over hiring practices. Eleven current or former members of Fletcher’s administration have been indicted, a stunning development for a candidate for governor who campaigned as a reformer who would “clean up” Frankfort.

Fletcher has already fired nine political appointees, including his deputy chief of staff and the director of the governor’s Office of Personnel and Efficiency, and he has accepted the resignation of Daniel Groves, a top aide and the manager of his 2003 campaign.

Fletcher has already pardoned nine people indicted in connection with the investigation into the administration’s personnel decisions, and local observers are waiting to see whether Fletcher himself may be indicted. The governor also has called for the firing of the Republican state party chairman.

Not surprisingly, given the controversy, Fletcher’s ratings have plummeted.

A Sept. 7-13 Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll of 801 adults found the governor’s job approval standing at 38 percent, while 54 percent of respondents disapproved. Another Courier-Journal poll, conducted in August shortly after Fletcher announced that he would seek re-election in 2007, found only 17 percent saying that they’d vote to re-elect him. Twice as many respondents, 34 percent, said they planned to vote to replace him.

The governor’s problems and sinking poll numbers, coinciding with President Bush’s problems, have Democrats wondering whether Bluegrass State Republicans might be hit with a “perfect storm” next year.

But you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and Democrats still have work to do to field strong challengers in a number of districts.

Democratic insiders currently are most excited about their announced challenger to 2nd district Rep. Ron Lewis (R), state Rep. Mike Weaver. Weaver is a pro-life Democrat who served 34 years in the military, both in the Navy and the Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam.

But the legislator, 67, has never raised much money in his races and may not fully understand what he faces running against an incumbent in a Congressional district that Bush carried by 31 points, 65 percent to 34 percent. Lewis won his last re-election with 68 percent, about a point and a half below his 2002 showing.

Private Democratic poll numbers suggest that Weaver could become a credible challenger to Lewis. But Republican insiders argue that Lewis and influential Kentucky Republicans are well aware that Democrats are targeting the race, and that Lewis will have the resources he needs, as well as the ammunition, to fend off Weaver.

In Kentucky’s 3rd district, the Democrats’ longtime nemesis, Rep. Anne Northup (R), just dodged a bullet when Jack Conway, who drew 48 percent against Northup in 2002, decided not to challenge the Congresswoman next year.

Democrats insist that they will have a strong opponent for Northup, but former Kentucky Secretary of State John Brown III, another name widely floated as a possible candidate, apparently is not interested. Now, some Democrats mention former U.S. Attorney Steve Reed as a possible candidate. Reed, an African-American, is managing partner of a Louisville law firm and a member of the board of trustees of the University of Kentucky.

On paper, Northup’s district is very competitive. Both Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Vice President Al Gore carried the district, and GOP strategists readily admit that Northup has to work hard all the time to hold the seat. But it’s also true that the DCCC has thrown a number of strong candidates of very different stripes against the Republican. Northup, who is now sitting on just more than $1 million, has survived each time in part because she runs excellent races.

Democrats also hope to recruit a credible challenger against 1st district GOP Rep. Ed Whitfield, who had just under $1 million in the bank on Sept. 30. A one-time lobbyist who was elected in the GOP wave of 1994, Whitfield was unopposed in 2000 and won each of his past two races with more than 65 percent of the vote.

So far, the only Democrat who has filed is former Rep. Tom Barlow, who was ousted by Whitfield in 1994. Insiders dismiss Barlow as a serious contender, pointing to his defeat by Whitfield in a 1998 rematch and his unsuccessful bid for the Senate nomination in 2002.

Finally, Democrats haven’t given up hoping that they can recruit an opponent for freshman Republican Rep. Geoff Davis, who won an open seat last year. But Davis’ district is normally a Republican stronghold, and Democrats still haven’t found a strong challenger.

Clearly, Democrats don’t yet have the candidates they need to take advantage of the GOP’s troubles, both nationally and in Kentucky. But the Bluegrass State remains the kind of political environment that Democrats want and need, and that means Republicans can’t take their incumbency for granted.